I’ve been wanting to write about author Lisa Genova’s newest book, Love, Anthony for a long time, ever since I first met her (through Facebook). When we finally met face-to-face on Cape Cod, I was happy I’d waited. I interviewed Lisa and was able to put her book into a deeper perspective.
—SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT—
Love, Anthony is the story of two women, Beth and Olivia, and their families. The women do not know one another but their stories intersect nonetheless. We quickly learn at the beginning of the book that Olivia’s son Anthony has died a year ago at age eight. Anthony had a mild form of autism; he did not speak and he had certain intense focuses/passions, such as lining things up and collecting a certain kind of rock (the story is set on Nantucket. Olivia is locked inside her grief over Anthony, both his autism and his death. Most of all she feels that his life — and maybe even hers– are meaningless. Beth, on the other hand, is grappling with infidelity and who she is in the framework of a disintegrating marriage.
Without giving away more of the plot, the point of interest for this blog is the portrayal of autism and Olivia’s experience as an auitism mom There were so many moments in this book where I almost gasped, or teared up, recognizing myself in Olivia’s reflections (not on Anthony’s death, thank God, but her life as an autism mom), like this one: “Where she feels an unspoken bond, a compassionate kinship with mothers of children on the spectrum, she often feels all sorts of unflattering emotions in relation to the parents of typical boys and girls. Jealousy, irritation, rage, grief. Their normal, blessed, easy, unappreciated lives flaunted right there in front of her.”
Lisa really gets it, the inner life of the autism mom, and I devoured the book, hungry for this subject in a novel, written in an unaffected, unself-conscious, honest way. The book is not perfect, however; what book is, especially when viewed by as harsh a critic as this autism mom-autism novelist? In a way, there was a tiny ugly part of me that felt a burning jealousy of the author, that she had written such a skilled and fresh autism novel, clearly blessed by her publisher Simon & Schuster. Aside from my own human pettiness, one aspect of the book itself jarred me at first, until I understood why. The book relies on a surprising plot device to reveal Anthony’s thoughts, which I won’t reveal, but I must admit that it took me awhile and a conversation in email with the author to appreciate this. My only reason is that it felt strange and awkward to me that this child would have sophisticated language –in his head. To me, an autistic child’s voice would be a struggling, halting, awkward one (like Nick’s voice in my own book, Dirt). How could an autistic little boy be so insightful and articulate? It’s not that Anthony’s voice isn’t extremely moving, as he tries to explain in thought what autism, perception, and emotion feel like to him–and why. It is very poignant. But, I realized after my conversation with the author herself, that I was judging Anthony’s voice by my own idea of what Nat’s inner voice might be like. Lisa pointed out to me something I already knew: that plenty of autistic people have a great command of language but just not expressively verbally. If you’ve seen one autistic person, you’ve seen one autistic person!!
Anthony’s take on the workings of his own brain is fascinating. He describes his brain as divided into rooms that are pretty much sealed off from one another. He talks about the tremendous effort it takes for him to be diverted from one train of thought (when his mind is in one room) and he has to leave that room and find and enter a new one. The way I understood this is, say that Anthony is playing with stones and lining them up according to color; if his mom were to ask him where he found one of the stones, this would present a moment of profound frustration and confusion for Anthony, because to him the colors of the rocks on the floor have absolutely nothing to do with where he found them; they are completely differrent, unrelated stories, as it were.
Just like Lisa’s book Still Alice, which focused on a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s, the writing is crystalline, breathtaking, and real. A neuroscientist by training, one might think Lisa would slip into heavy-handed scientist mode, but she never does. She has the technical knowledge to write her brain-centric books with scientific accuracy, but this merely provides the springboard, the initial knowledge of the disorder. But Lisa’s books are always driven by heart, not head. Five out of five stars!
Interview with Lisa Genova (Some text is edited for readability, and may not be verbatim.)
SS:How did you get this idea?
LG: This book insisted on being this way. It came to me in a meditation.
SS: Do you know any autism spectrum kids?
LG: Oh yes. My cousin Tracy has a son with autism. Tracy is 11 years older than I am. I spent 1 day a week with her. She was pregnant twins, Lizzie and Anthony. I had Elena. Our worlds fell apart at the same time. My marriage was falling apart while Tracy was dealing with autism.
SS: Why did you have Beth, the non-autism mom, be the one who tells the autistic boy’s story?
LG: This book was going to be for a general audience, not just the autism community. I didn’t want to do a book that’s just about autism, that is in such a raw emotional place. And this boy is so little, I thought this might be a good way to allow the reader to stay with the story, to get a little relief from it, [autism], to imagine how their world might intertwine with autism. They’d identify with Beth and then Olivia. I wanted to bridge the chasm between parents whose kids have autism and whose don’t.
SS: Is there a message to the book?
LG: The answers I’ve seen Tracy go through – the denial, the anger, the despair – most days she lives in acceptance now. They way she got there isn’t because there have been neuroscience advancements. It’s because she’s tapped into some spiritual answers and that lends not just to her and her son, it lends to every human being around her. There’s this other thing I wanted to talk about too, that is amazing: that if [Olivia] can stop worrying about the dishes and lie down on the deck with him, there’s this connection she can feel with him. And the world around him. Unconditional love, that’s what we’re all here for.
SS: Why autism? Why did you write this book?
LG: I saw what this could do for autism. To create hope and awareness for what autism is outside of the autism community. I thought that my story might have a way of bridging that gap, for instance when we see the kid tantruming in the supermarket. I thought I could convey the message that we’re not all that different, autism or no. I also knew I wanted to write a book about autism someday for Tracy. And there are no neuroscience textbooks on autism. What’s the neuroatanomy, we don’t know. We don’t have any conclusions. I couldn’t rely on my neuroscience background to write this book.”
It was going to come from parents.